Why You Need to Watch Sonita

About an hour and a half ago, I was flipping through Netflix’s new releases, looking for something to keep me company while I tackle the lasagna dishes that I put off yesterday. I saw a documentary from a couple years ago, about a young Afghani woman who aspires to be a rapper, and thought “oh, that looks interesting.”

sonita

Goddamn.

God. Freakin’. Damn.

First of all, I seriously want to be Sonita’s real life friend. In her every action, this beautiful blend of gentleness and tenacity comes through. She’s someone who has lived through more than her own share of hardships, and still is fueled artistically as much by the desire to help others as herself. In her world, she defies both traditions and rules to be a voice for the unheard. You couldn’t ask for a better subject for a documentary.

Second, speaking of real life being as good as fiction, her story is gripping. It feels wrong to praise the narrative structure of real events that are being captured, rather than imagined, but the crew got incredibly lucky with their material, and put it together masterfully.

Third, and you knew it was coming to this, this is a story that needs to be watched right now.

sonita-red-scarf

I don’t just mean that this is a story that people need to be aware of. I do happen to think that, even when you are fairly well educated about the issues, there’s some things you can’t grok until you see a human story dramatized. But right now, the need for stories like this goes beyond the need for the viewer to understand someone like Sonita. It’s about the world knowing that viewers want to understand someone like Sonita. It’s about the media being encouraged to spend their time and effort supporting women’s rights and immigrant’s rights and human rights. It’s about turning our backs on the bigots and white nationalists who want to control the conversation, and instead saying to each other, “have you heard about that Afghani immigrant who made a music video even though it was technically illegal in her country? How she raps about social justice? She is so epic I kind of can’t stand it.”

Fourth, it is so full of hope. In addition to the amazingness Sonita herself, there are so many beautiful moments of love and empowerment. It was sad, and scary, but also warm and lovely and ultimately so happy. Trust me, you need to feel the way this film will make you feel.

Go, watch it! It’s amazing.

sonita-smiles

The Electoral College and the White Supremacist’s Advantage

In these first few weeks of the Trump Administration, we’ve seen truly awful executive orders. We’ve also seen a historic rising up of people, organizations, and businesses. Even normally lazy and intractable politicians are taking the hint. This isn’t shaping up to be the smooth ride Donald wanted.

While this encourages me, it isn’t actually him who scares me the most. He’s the current manifestation of something that has been around a lot longer, will probably outlast him and is a lot more dangerous; the white supremacy movement.

How to create a truly diverse and equal world is a complex conversation with many different valid perspectives, but any decent human being should agree that it should exist. If your fundamental goal is to deny the humanity of anyone based on their race, language, nation of origin or ancestral ethnicity, you are not a legitimate political movement. You are an organization of hate. In recent years, white America has patted itself on the back for racial progressiveness, all the while ignoring dog whistling, southern apologists, and the piles of evidence for ongoing institutional racism. Now that white supremacists have put themselves back in the public eye, they have an opportunity to put themselves back on the table as a political perspective that we treat as normal. That cannot happen.

It is well known that your odds of being racist inversely correspond with your actual experience with people from different races. This effect can be mitigated by taboos against discussing race, institutional racism and socially acceptable racism, but in general, when people are allowed to socialize with other ethnic groups, discuss their differences and also find common ground, the idea of institutionalized racism becomes abhorrent. As America moves towards both greater demographic diversity, and also a greater social conversation about race, white supremacy loses more and more footholds. This excellent development means that, as time goes on, they only have a few regions of the country where they even have a chance to spread their ideology.

Simply put, they are better off in rural regions than urban areas.

This advantage doesn’t come from any moral superiority of city dwellers, but simply the fact that in a city you become more and more likely to run into people who are different from you on a daily basis. You are more likely to get inoculated against white supremacy, even in a society where racist institutions still exist. Rural areas are more isolated, and so easier for white supremacists to infect.

Now, the fact that they are so isolated should give white supremacists a disadvantage politically. This is where the Electoral College comes in. Because of the Electoral College, every Presidential election, voters in highly rural get their votes weighted double or treble over voters in states with major cities. With every Presidential election, they get a chance to control the public conversation about race. They get a chance to appoint Supreme Court Justices by proxy. They get a chance to dictate global policy. Without the Electoral College, white supremacists today would have no chance of putting their platform on a global or even national scale. With it, well, we are all seeing what has happened.

I think we will defeat Donald Trump. He’s too easy to mock and rally against. What scares me is the prospect of someone taking advantage of the galvanized white supremacist movement that he created. I worry that someone will come along who is smoother, more subtle when it comes to concealing their crimes, and altogether far less easy to mock. Not only do I think this is possible, but right now I think it’s inevitable.

What isn’t inevitable is that person’s victory. Even now, with so many racial problems still infecting our country, I believe our population has become too diverse for a true white supremacist to win the national popular vote. But as 2016 has proved, it’s possible for even a very unlikable one to win the Electoral College.

Activism against the current threat is wonderful, and we should keep doing it. But we should also have an eye on the future. The Electoral College is life support for neo-nazis. We need to unplug it.

This is part of an ongoing series on why I care so much about the Electoral College and the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. If I’ve convinced you that the Electoral College is something to be concerned about, or just want to know more, please check out the NPVIC’s site. If you want to take action, the best way is to call your state governor and representatives and tell them you want your state to sign the NPVIC. On their homepage is a search bar, where you can type your zip code and find out who they are. 

Good Offense, Bad Offense

Whenever I write about social justice and writing, whether I’m sharing my own perspective or asking for someone else’s, typically someone will come along and inform me that it’s impossible to avoid offending everyone. Therefore, apparently, my entire effort is fundamentally pointless. I was recently in an argument with a particularly belligerent person, out to save me from my futile quest of political correctness, and I realized he was misunderstanding something very basic to my goals. Contrary to his assumption, I’m actually all for offending people with my writing.

I’ve heard people say that good writing is often offensive, and I’ve heard that idea attacked by fellow social justice geeks. I actually think that attack is misguided. It’s not that the very concept of “good art offends” is wrong. It’s just normally presented as part of an overall bad argument. It’s like a seed that’s been planted in one of those tea candle holders. It won’t ever have room to properly bloom and fruit, but that’s not the seed’s fault. It’s the fault of the dumbass who planted it there.

Offense is the reaction of people who have been made to question something that they profoundly did not want to question. Sometimes that reluctance itself needs to be challenged. Some things stagnate and decay when they aren’t shaken up and re-examined regularly. Politics and religion in particular are improved by periodic interrogation. Great storytelling hacks our brains to make us think about something in a way we didn’t expect, so we should want it to occasionally offend people.

However, that principle doesn’t apply to everything. A person shouldn’t have to question their basic self-worth; their behavior or habits, sure, but not their fundamental value or basic human rights. That’s my first issue with the whole “you can’t please everybody” argument. No, I can’t please everybody. That’s why I try to prioritize pleasing people by treating them like humans, as opposed to pleasing people by tiptoing around their worldviews.

Which brings me to the core issue. The kind of offense I’ve been targeting these days really doesn’t come from any kind of intentional statement (most of the time). Instead, it comes from laziness. We have built up a vast tapestry of tropes that center around treating straight, white, heterosexual cisgender non-disabled men as normal and everyone else as subtly less human. Writers, from romance novelists to screenwriters to stand-up comics, draw from art that came before them, and often that means borrowing racist, sexist, ableist or homo/transphobic tropes. Even recognizing them takes conscious thought. Figuring out how to write without them takes serious effort. But failing to put that effort doesn’t make you the good type of offensive. It’s not thought provoking to stereotype Black women. It’s not constructive to question a disabled person’s basic worth and dignity.

Every norm eventually takes on a basic comfort; even ones that have no other redeeming quality. Challenging bigoted norms, therefore, is offensive. It isn’t even just offensive to people who are actively invested in oppression. It’s offensive to people who intellectually dislike oppression, but also have gotten comfortable with the rhythms of it. They don’t like to be confronted with the idea that their own story ideas, inspired by bigoted works, might have inherited bigotry. They really don’t want to be challenged to do the work to undo it. That’s the real reason for the ubiquitous pushback. It’s easy to tell others that the real world doesn’t have safe spaces, or that other people need to grow a thicker skin. It’s a lot harder to grow one yourself.

So to everyone out there who makes it your mission to remind people that they’re eventually going to piss off someone, or that they’ll kill themselves trying to make everyone happy, or that good art is sometimes offensive; take a moment to consider that maybe you’re the one they are willing to offend.

This rant has been brought to you by a really annoying conversation, a bad case of staircase wit, and my sudden realization that I hadn’t met my four posts a month standard. You probably picked up on that. You smart reader, you. 

An Open Letter to Kellyanne Conway

Dear Ms. Conway,

Yesterday I caught your interview with George Stephanopoulos. It was disturbing, on many levels. You dodged his very reasonable question about why Donald and press secretary Sean Spicer both lied about attendance at the inauguration, and when he did what good interviewers do, (that is, repeat the question until you gave a real answer) you accused him of harping on an issue. Even when he clarified that he agreed it shouldn’t be important, but stressed that the falsehoods were worthy of discussion, you kept treating him as if he was single handedly standing in the way of talking about real issues.

That was abusive, Ms. Conway. That was practically gaslighting.

And that wasn’t the only time you used tricks from Manipulation for Psychological Abusers 101. You used promises of future good behavior to bargain for free reign now, when past behavior clearly indicates those promises will go unfulfilled. You encouraged viewers to confuse “less bad” with “good” when you talked about Donald’s inauguration speech. True, it was not as horrendously crass as we are used to, but it was also fearmongering and an inaccurate characterization of our nation. I know you want to people to equate “he’s not being quite as nasty as we are used to” with “he’s actually fine,” because that’s a classic trick manipulative people use to convince others to trust them. It saves them from the inconvenience of a real apology.

That brings me to the one thing that made me more angry than any of the other abuser tactics. You used one of the most sadistic mindfucks of all; using your victim’s defenses against abuse as justification for that abuse.

The press criticize you, so it’s fine that you exclude them and dodge their questions. People protest you, so it’s fine that you lie and cheat and bully. You treat other people horribly, but that’s fine, because by having the audacity to stand up against their own bad treatment, they justify your abuse.

No. That’s not how this works.

We all saw this dumpster fire of an election. We saw how your candidate bullied, insulted, and incited violence at every rally. Every newscaster and journalist saw how he changed the tone of the entire election cycle. He spent more time insulting Mexicans alone than talking about concrete policies, and still had time left over for African-American communities, women, people with disabilities, Muslims, refugees…..

Let me break this down for you. Until Donald Trump makes a genuine apology for everything he has said over the past year and a half, you have no moral high ground to criticize anyone’s conduct or civility, period. Here’s what that apology would look like;

  • Admitting, without reservation, that he was crude, demeaning, and even abusive to millions of people.
  • Naming specific individuals and groups and directing individualized apologies to them.
  • Admitting that this was damaging on both a personal level and damaging to our national culture.
  • Taking full responsibility for what he said and the consequences, and apologizing for going so long without an apology.

Having trouble picturing the Donald we all know doing that? Well, tough. That doesn’t change the fact that this is the only thing that would even give you the right to criticize other people’s tones. You don’t get to adjust the goalposts for him to something like;

  • Going nearly fifteen minutes without adding to the list of people he has crassly insulted.
  • Being polite to people who are knuckling under and giving him everything he wants for fear of being abused even more.
  • Giving one of those fake apologies where you explain how nothing you did was actually your fault.
  • Stating that things are going to be better in the future and expecting forgiveness on credit.

And since I’m having to explain these basic things in detail, I might as well add that if such an unlikely apology were to be given, it would only give you the right to ask for civil discourse to begin again. It would not give you the right to avoid doing any of the following;

  • Answering questions from the press, including ones that could potentially make you look bad.
  • Listening to the concerns of people, regardless of whether they voted for you or not.
  • Tolerating peaceful protests from people who decide, for any reason at all, that they aren’t happy with your actions.
  • Educating yourselves collectively on the issues, and evolving your stances.
  • Compromising and being happy with getting some of what you wanted, instead of whining that you didn’t get to steamroll over those with a slightly different take on the world.

Those are all just basic consequences of getting to live in a democracy.

Based on Donald’s past behavior, we can’t even picture him dealing with that final list of to-dos. That’s why we hate your boss, and that’s why we protest him. We are expressing anger and fear at a man who has gone out of his way to be infuriating and scary.

This has been your refresher course on Basic Decent Human Behavior. If you don’t like it, get the fuck out of here.

Sincerely,

Lane William Brown

Book Review: Ash, by Malinda Lo

ash

What it’s about: Ash is born to a fairy-believing mother and a skeptical father, in a land where fairy tales are warnings. When her parents die and she is left with a cruel stepmother, Ash finds her broken heart pulling her to the fairies’ world. If she follows it, she might never come back.

A retelling of Cinderella, with a sapphic love interest.

Praise: This book was captivating. The fairies are constructed to have a genuinely otherworldly feel. Lots of authors try that, and most don’t succeed nearly as well as Malinda Lo does here. The worldbuilding worked very well, as did the characterization of all the characters, especially the main one. I loved the romance. I loved the suspense. I loved the way the story unfurled slowly, but didn’t drag for even a paragraph.

Criticism: It’s a fairly loose Cinderella adaptation. The conclusion departs from the fairy tale a lot, and I did find that a little disappointing when I realized there wouldn’t be a shoe scene. But I got over that fairly quickly. The ending was still beautiful and satisfying in its own right, and when I closed the book I was extremely happy.

Recommended? It’s Cinderella with lesbians. Of course I recommend it!

The Last Electoral College

First, I motherfucking love this. This is the best shit.

(source here)

I suspect for many people, their New Year’s resolutions look more like New Year’s battle plans, as they use resources like this and this to figure out how to effectively combat the bigotry of the Trump administration. I’ve already seen some people put together game plans, and it’s awesome. I’ve joined a lot of action mailing lists and I’ve been working on contacting my representatives, which feels great. But I’ve decided to add my own personal, specific quest.

In 2017, I’m going to make the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact something that politicians openly talk about and campaign on.

The Electoral College had one job to do; prevent a corrupt, unqualified demagogue from taking election due to a popular vote. Last year, it did the exactly opposite of that. At best, it’s redundant, and at worst it undermines the very concept of democracy. There are two ways to get rid of it. First, there’s the constitutional amendment route, but you need an incredibly united front to do that, and in today’s politically fragmented world that is unlikely. Second, there’s the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, or NPVIC. When they sign the compact, states agree that they will award all their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote, as soon as 270 electoral votes worth of them are signed on. When it hits that magic number, the electoral college will automatically vote for the winner of the popular vote. It’s a clever trick that makes the college cancel itself out.

Some people have argued that this won’t work because it isn’t in the interest of red states (who tend to gain a disproportionate advantage from the Electoral College, hence George W. Bush and Donald Trump). It also won’t be in the interest of swing states, who get wined and dined every four years thanks to the electors. So far only blue states have signed it and, according to these experts, only deep blue states will, so it’s a lost cause.

To which I say, bullshit. Parties aren’t going to sign it. Elected officials are, and elected officials are selfish. They want to be re-elected. If we send a message that we are fed up with this shitty system, and promising to sign it is key to their elections, they will sign the compact.

Right now, there’s a circle of silence. Politicians don’t talk about the NPVIC, so voters don’t know about it. Because voters don’t know about it, they don’t petition, ask or vote for it. And because they don’t petition, ask or vote for it, politicians feel comfortable ignoring it, which is why they don’t bring it up.

A lot of action people have taken has centered around calling our national representatives, which is great. It’s incredibly important to do that. But we also have state governors and legislators who we can call and talk to. We will also have elections, and candidates. Virginia and New Jersey are electing new governors this year. I’ve already called candidates in my state asking them to make statements on their support of the NPVIC. I plan to go to events whenever I can and ask them about it publicly as well. And I’m going to do what I can to get other people asking politicians about this.

I’ll keep updating as I keep working on this. In the meantime, if you are reading this, please call your state governors and legislators and tell them you’re voting in 2018 and talk to them about the NPVIC. Keep yourself updated on it’s progress. This can be done.

Reviews as an Agnostic Atheist: Bad Company Revisited

A while ago I did a standard review of the episode Bad Company, and on reflection I don’t think I did a good job expressing what truly bothered me about it. I spent too much time snarking and not enough time analyzing.

To recap, this episode has two plots. In one, Donna Barclay hangs out with her friend Rachel, who is no longer a Christian. Rachel shoplifts, abandons Donna with a mall cop, lets her take all the consequences and even mocks her for being a sucker. In the other, Connie goes to a Bible study with one of her friends, only to discover that the man leading it has radically different views from her mentor Whit. She comes back confused on several theological points, and Whit’s answer is that she was wrong to have tried a new Bible study to begin with. He doesn’t counter the other leader’s logic or reasoning at all. He just dismisses it and says that Connie should have focused on just learning Whit’s version of Christianity, which is obviously correct because…..

It just is, okay?

What stood out to me most about Bad Company isn’t that both Rachel and the alternative Bible study teacher were wrong, but that Connie and Donna were treated as wrong to even give them a chance. They were both warned to be careful, punished for reaching out, and praised for deciding to avoid people like that. The teacher was not a bad person, just a person who disagreed with Whit, and while Rachel was genuinely awful, this was treated as an inevitable consequence of her lack of faith.

I’ve talked about other awful AIO episodes. I’ve reviewed one where Connie learns she is a fundamentally horrible person, because she can’t be perfectly patient a hundred percent of the time. I’ve reviewed one that tells kids with anxiety disorders that if they can’t banish all their fear, it’s because they don’t love God enough. Most recently, I reviewed a lesson about Christmas charity that consists almost entirely of racist tropes. I’ve certainly established that AIO can churn out terrible morals. But I don’t think that’s what is worst about them.

Even shows I love sometimes have an episode with really messed up messages; Doctor Who comes to mind, and it’s my favorite show of all time. But the thing about Doctor Who is that overall, it celebrates adventure, empathy and intelligence. Watching it makes me want to go to new places, help people who are hurting, and educate myself. The bad messages that pop up every so often in an episode are balanced out by a series-wide message that encourages me to grow as a person.

Adventures in Odyssey is just the opposite. There are episodes with messages that are pretty good. But looking back, I don’t think I can attribute much personal growth to them. The underlying message of the series is to distrust outsiders and to trust authority without question, but only authorities AIO itself approves of. They will brand their truth as God’s, but they demand that you take their word for it that, of all Christian interpretations out there, they are the ones who have it all figured out.

Realizing this difference between episodic messages and series wide themes made me realize I can’t approach this series like my other reviews. In my reviews of Veggie Tales and The Screwtape Letters, I worked hard to present a balanced, fair analysis. For both of them, I could produce sincere praise. Chapter by chapter, The Screwtape Letters had many ideas I disagreed with, but ultimately it was about knowing yourself and trying to become a better person. Story by story, Veggie Tales  had a couple morals that were under-thought, but ultimately it was about telling kids they were loved and should pass love on to others. I can get behind all that. But the only  constant assertion of Adventures in Odyssey is that Whit, mouthpiece of the show, is always right.

Because of this, trying to review the “good episodes” of AIO makes me feel like a placating doormat. I don’t want to paint it in the worst light; this was still a big part of my childhood. I’d love to be nostalgic. But the truth is, when I try to do a positive review, it comes out something like, “yeah, some characters did bad things and then there were consequences but then forgiveness so I guess everything is fine here.” The reviews feel phoned it, because the episodes they were based on felt phoned in.

I wondered about the incredible blandness, and I realized that the writers are constantly held back by the need to reaffirm the same morals over and over again, to stick to the official script, and above all to not inspire out of the box thinking. As a result, the morality tales, while technically good, don’t ever exactly move me to become a better person. AIO has the most depth and conviction behind it, not when it is portraying real goodness, but when it is conjuring up a battle of good and evil, where good is Odyssey and evil is everything outside its borders.

Furthermore, the show never gets better. I’ve already sampled episodes from across about a decade, and if anything the quality is definitely declining. This is what happens when you set yourself up to be above criticism. You weed out people who would tell you that you could stand to improve. So, of course, a show created by people with that approach never improves. It either stagnates or degrades. And it takes it’s captive audience along with it.

RIP, Carrie Fisher

There’s something about this that is hitting me extra hard. Not even because I was an especially rabid fan of hers. I just… liked her. With idolization comes a sense that the epic tale must come to an end, that all heroes must one day go to Valhalla. People you like aren’t supposed to die though. They’re just supposed to keep existing, forever, periodically turning up to make this moment of your life extra happy. I liked Carrie Fisher, because she was talented and funny. Because she brought Princess Leia to life and when I was a pre-transition kid it was really great to see a woman in an action movie who DID things. Because by all accounts, in her real life, she was a genuinely sweet and lovely person.

And it’s also sad because, this year, she’s not just a person who died, she’s another person who died. In a way, I feel like her death, so tragic and so close to the end of this year, comes with the echoes of everyone else we lost who I couldn’t quite mourn, because something else was happening. Leonard Cohen died, and even though he was one of my favorite singers of all time, I couldn’t process it, because my nation had just accidentally elected a sociopathic imbecile on a fucking technicality. I mean, Jesus. Pterry and Leonard and now Carrie.

We keep talking about 2016 as this kind of cursed year, and there’s a strange comfort to that; curses are, at least, under someone’s control. Not a good person’s control, but somebody’s. If someone is to blame than someone can be stopped. If it’s just random bad shit, who knows when it’s going to end. We’d all been counting our costs and gearing up to mourn together in a way that suggested things were finally blowing over, and now Carrie.

This isn’t how it’s going to be forever. For all the cold comfort materialism and statistics sometimes seem to bring, the truth is that they still say this will end. Wild bell curves still regress to a mean. Things die and are born and grow and die again. There are winters and summers and springs.

Still, if by any chance I’m wrong about this whole materialistic skeptical godless thing, then I’m really fucking positive Carrie Fisher went straight to the good place.

Thanks for being you. It was really cool to have you while you were here.

carrie-fisher

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Agnostic Atheist: The Day After Christmas

This episode opens with Chris, the annoying bookend morals woman, telling us all how we can experience the joy of Christmas even after we have gotten bored with our toys. Okay, place your bets now. Is it A. going to church a lot B. taking all of Whit’s advice all the time or C. giving to others?

Well, actually it’s C. Yay!

The problem with Adventures in Odyssey isn’t that a hundred percent of the official morals are terrible message. In fact, most of the time, I do agree with them. What has bothered me about AIO, as I’ve been revisiting the episodes, isn’t the message as much as the execution. The best message in the world can be spoiled by the way you convey it.

It opens with a kid named Annie hanging out at Whit’s End. She has been told to get out of the house by her parents, who are sick of her whining about being bored. Which is really their fault; after all, they only gave her a doll, and a moving teddy bear, and new shoes and a coat, and jewelry, and some kind of combination.

Yeah, she’s kind of a brat. Whit listens to her spoiled tirade, with admirable patience, and then invites her on his yearly trip to bring Christmas to a church Foster Creek, a place that has never before been mentioned and never will be again.

Annie: Isn’t that like a, well, you know?

Whit: A ghetto?

Annie: Yeah.

Whit: Well, some people call it that.

Uh, no Whit. You just called it that. If you don’t like the word, come up with another one, otherwise fucking own it.

As they drive through Foster Creek, Annie squeals over the dirt and the houses that Whit confirms are made of literal cardboard. In the church, we meet Reverend Pike, who gushes over Whit’s arrival and everything he has brought. He’s clearly coded as Black by his voice, but he isn’t using AAVE. Frankly, he’s using a voice I usually associate with the Uncle Tom-ish butler in a movie made around 1930. We also meet Tommy, a troubled boy who Reverend Pike is trying to look after.

Tommy also doesn’t speak with AAVE, but rather speaks exactly like Whit and Annie. I remember specifically noting this as a kid. Normally, Odyssey uses accents constantly, both to establish character and to disguise the fact that they are re-using voice actors. The accents they use are usually for minor, one-off characters, and they usually correspond to stereotypes. Characters will be given Italian accents because they are passionate, Scottish accents because they are brusque, New York Jewish accents because they are stingy and quarrelsome, New Jersey mafia accents because they are delinquents, all in a small town that is otherwise portrayed as culturally homogenous. Now they are going out of their way to portray this as a place where you would expect, going by stereotypes, to hear AAVE, but it’s conspicuously absent. Instead, to signal that Reverend Pike is nice, he is given a voice that screams “Uncle Tom,” and Tommy has a standard Midwestern voice.

I could argue here that it’s entirely possible that Tommy just speaks that way, or is code switching around Annie, but that wasn’t the interpretation that honestly came to mind when I was a kid. Nor do I think it was the interpretation AIO intended. When I was a kid, I knew Tommy would speak AAVE in the real world, but they were making him speak “normally” as a sort of kindness. I was surrounded by people who treated AAVE as, not an English dialect like any other, but a sign of incredible ignorance at best and actual moral decay at worst. AIO was bestowing some dignity on him that his natural accent would strip him of. The pastor’s accent though, one that is associated with submissiveness to whites, was perfectly acceptable, and in fact established him as a “good one.”

I didn’t grow up with anyone who expressed active hatred towards Black people, but a different kind of racism was ubiquitous. It was primarily expressed in a “we won’t mention that Black culture exists, because it’s such a horrible thing” approach. And let me be clear; it’s still very damaging. It enables the more violent kind of racism, but even on it’s own, it sends a constant message that Black people are inferior, while patting itself on the back for not mentioning it.

Now, thanks to others speaking out, I’ve unlearned that message. I now understand that AAVE is just like Bostonian and Cockney and Irish English, and that Odyssey’s omission wasn’t “PC.” It was erasure.

Anyway, Whit apparently wanted to bring Annie to the nursing home to meet some of his friends, but he is reminded by the pastor that they won’t let children in at this time. So he’s forced to leave her behind, with Tommy. Naturally, being the official bad kid of the episode, he drags her off to ogle a crazy cat lady. On the way, though, they are harassed by a gang called The Locos. The Locos definitely have accents. I don’t honestly know what kind of accent it is. It doesn’t sound like even a reasonable approximation of how any real people talk. It’s just kind of generically offensive.

Tommy abandons Annie, who is rescued by Mrs. Rossini, the crazy old cat lady. Annie learns that Mrs. Rossini is lonely and unsure who to trust in this neighborhood, and has developed a tough exterior to drive away the Locos, but otherwise is rather sweet. They drink cocoa and talk about her cats, Christmas, and Mrs. Rossini’s life before her husband died and the neighborhood turned bad.

Mrs. Rossini is a nuanced and interesting character, and seeing Annie open up and learn about the perspective of someone less privileged was actually very interesting. But it’s also maddening that, of all the characters in this ghetto, the only one who gets any development is the only one who could easily be interpreted as white. She, like Tommy and Annie has a standard Midwestern accent. Her Italian surname, while conceivable on an African-American, is more likely to belong to a white person. She mentions living in this neighborhood when it was nicer. Your average white conservative child is utterly ignorant about redlining. There is almost no chance they would interpret this as “this area was nice before banks began discriminatory lending practices, and city planners cut us off from all resources with a superhighway and deliberately neglected our infrastructure in favor of taking care of predominantly white neighborhoods, therefore creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of racial inequality.” When I was a kid, I interpreted “it was nice once,” as “it was white once.”

Anyway, the police catch the Locos and Annie is safely returned to Whit, and they all have a nice Christmas party together at the church. Annie is now excited to return and help Mrs. Rossini out, and Chris spells out for all of us that the Official Moral of this episode is to experience Christmas joy by helping others.

As I’ve mentioned before, Odyssey is very selective about how you are supposed to reach out to. Anyone who would cause you to question your ordinary way of thinking is treated as foolish at best, dangerous at worst. The neighborhood Whit takes Annie to is one where her values and norms might be questioned, but the only person she connects with is someone who is exactly like her aside from being older and poorer. Whit, too, doesn’t seem really connected to these people. In contrast with Mrs. Rossini, Reverend Pike is flat, and your classic recipient of the white savior trope. Annie bonds with Mrs. Rossini and plans to return regularly to bring her cat food and check up on her. Everything that Whit and Reverend Pike say suggests that Whit only comes to Foster Creek once a year, to play Santa Claus and receive their gratitude. Whites are characters. Blacks are background.

This is especially disturbing because I feel like the audience of AIO is primed to absorb toxic messages about race. It’s an overwhelmingly white subculture. It’s also an isolated kind of white. I was lucky. I grew up on the coast in an incredibly diverse county, and had many friends to educate me. I’m not sure your average AIO listener has it. Mostly they are kids in white towns who grow up hearing lots of angry rants about immigrants stealing our jobs. Plus, they are raised to treat AIO episodes as practically gospel, not to analyze and criticize them, and the show overall discourages it’s listeners from listening to those dangerous liberals who might educate them about race.

Final Ratings

Best Part: Mrs. Rossini. I wish she had been Black, but that doesn’t change the fact that I liked her.

Worst Part: Seeing how long I ranted about them, I’m gonna have to say all the accents.

Story/Moral: Normally I separate these, but this time it feels right to consider them together. This episode has good bones. The basic structure is both an interesting story and a valuable lesson. Then it animates it almost entirely with a very subtle and insidious kind of racism.

This episode isn’t about race. This episode is about charity. But what is charity when you don’t bother to see the recipients as human? When you don’t listen to their real needs? When you show up for accolades on Christmas and don’t look at the issues impacting their everyday life? What is charity when the only people worthy of real understanding and help throughout the year are the ones who are just like you?

It’s an exercise in self-congratulation. This episode preaches charity, but it doesn’t really teach it.

D-

An Open Letter to Mattea: Love and Truth and the Survivor’s Bias

Hello again Mattea,

As promised, here’s a full post’s worth of a response to your comment on my Screwtape Letters review. Sorry for the delay; I’ve been a bit preoccupied with the political situation. In my post I took apart Lewis’ explanation of why sex outside of marriage is condemned, and I noted that I’ve never heard another good reason for why sex is bad, or bad outside of that specific context. You gave your explanation, and it makes sense from your perspective, but it doesn’t really contain anything that’s convincing to somebody who doesn’t already believe in, not only Jesus, but your specific interpretation of Jesus, love, and purity.

Hopefully you can see that yourself, and I don’t have to spell out why; if you’d like a fuller explanation let me know in the comments. That doesn’t really bother me because you also said you won’t tell somebody else how to live their life. As I said in that chapter, if you have made a person decision to remain a virgin until marriage, based on your understanding of your own religion, I have no problem whatsoever with that. I don’t think you’re a loser or missing out, as you seemed to think I might. Props to you for living life your own way; my only issue is with people who let their religion dictate somebody else’s sex life. Since that’s not you, we have no problem.

The part I really want to respond to starts here.

“But as a Christian, I have a deep desire to see the lives around me experience the same joy and love and peace that I have in Jesus.”

You were homeschooled, I was homeschooled, you mentioned you’re twenty-one and you have been a Christian your whole life (or at least you’ve been Christian 21 years and you are a college student, correct me if I jumped to the wrong conclusion there). I can relate to that. I was only a little younger than you when I left the faith. So much of what you said resonated with my memories of how I used to think, and particularly with my ideas of what the world outside was like. Because my access to that world was very limited, I had a lot of misconceptions about life from somebody else’s perspective.

You were willing to be very personal about your experiences and perspectives, so what I really want to do isn’t argue, so much as share what life has been like for me, growing up the way you did and then seeing another side.

For example, you said, “whenever I hear people’s stories about how they left the church, they [didn’t] believe God exists, or [they] ‘fell away.'” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the survivor’s bias. The classic example is WWII planes, where they tried to determine structural weaknesses in bombers by analyzing the bullet holes in aircraft that returned from missions. But however much they reinforced those areas, the number of planes shot down never changed, until they realized their mistake. They were looking at the bullet holes in the planes that survived. This gave them no information about why planes fell down.

In the church, you hear conversion stories, or stories about falling away and returning to the fold. Ministers and evangelists often assume these stories are typical of people’s experiences in the secular world, but they aren’t representative at all. And, for the record, atheist activists also make this mistake. They hear stories of former believers who had traumatic, toxic experiences, and assume that is representative of all believers. Again, it’s not that simple. This is why I don’t proselytize anymore. I want everyone in the world to be happy, loved and fulfilled; I don’t presume the journey there will look the same for everyone.

So here’s my deconversion story, which I share not to convince you to leave Christianity, but just so you’ll know something of the data that you aren’t being exposed to.

My faith was built on three things. First was a model of how the world worked. It was extremely self-referential, but it still had its own internal logic. Everything held up, but every piece was dependent on every other piece. Second was a community of people who all lived according to the same framework. Third was a handful of experiences that seemed to confirm a few of those pieces, and, by extension, the entire framework.

Yes, I too had experiences that, at one point, I thought made my beliefs unassailable.  There was a time when I was walking to an acting class, and I felt extremely anxious. I prayed, and felt a presence standing beside me. There was a time when I was confirmed, and I felt like I was about to step out of my body and soar. I thought this must be the Holy Spirit alighting on me. There were many times when I spoke in tongues during church services, and there were times when someone came and delivered a message to me from God.

So, if I had experiences like this, why would I ever doubt? Well, for one thing, I learned about how people from other religions, ones I considered absolutely false or even inspired by demons, had similar experiences. I read scientific explanations for them; states of self-hypnosis, group mentalities, cold reading, altered consciousness inspired by social pressure, etc. Learning this was positively creepy, because once I knew it, I had three choices.

Number one; I could believe that, of all the religions and denominations out there, one was divine and the rest were inspired by Satan, who was mimicking God’s work. This was comforting as long as I assumed I was in the right one, but the more I thought about the mathematics of that, the more terrifying this idea was. After all, the false, Satan-inspired religions outnumbered the one true faith, and most people blindly follow whatever religion they were raised in. Statistically, what were the real odds that I had happened to be born into the one true religion? If I assumed Satan could mimic God, I could never be sure I was following good and not evil.

Number two; believe that God existed, but was not the exclusively Protestant Christian God I had been raised with. He was in, if not all religions, than most of them, and if you got some details about his life wrong he wouldn’t hold it against you, so long as your heart was in the right place. This seemed sensible, comforting, and deeply blasphemous. If I chose to believe this, I could never admit it to the Christians around me. They were the sort of people who genuinely believed Catholics and Mormons were going to hell; to propose that God might speak through Islam or Hinduism or even Wiccan was as good as abandoning our religion altogether.

Number three; believe the materialistic scientists were right. All of this was a consequence of a brain that was easily deceived by social pressure and my own expectations.

As I read more about the way these feelings of mine could be simulated by stage magicians and fake psychics, the last seemed more and more likely. Also, I noticed disturbing patterns in the way all my churches talked about evidence for the supernatural. If a story was hard to confirm, it was by far more compelling and fantastic than any that I could confirm. People had stories of a friend of a friend of a friend who was healed of cancer, or prayed a man back to live. But nobody I knew was ever healed. Oh, but that was fine! God and mysterious ways and plans and all that. Meanwhile, I had the evidence of the divinely inspired outbursts people had in church; prophecies and messages from God and speaking in tongues. Of course, a stranger walking in might say that these people were just improvising and believing they were inspired by God because of social pressure…

It was all right to have evidence for God, but nobody was allowed to talk about evidence against. If evidence lined up, it was repeated and celebrated. If it didn’t, it was dismissed on any excuse at all. This was problematic, because in my own personal life, I felt like God was letting me down.

Take that anxiety attack outside the acting class, for example. It was far from the worst I ever experienced. There were jobs I had to quit, events I had to miss, and days I spent unable to stop crying. Once I had an anxiety attack so bad I couldn’t move. I don’t remember how long, because I couldn’t even turn my head to look at a clock. I just lay on a couch, feeling like I was encased in a cement mold, crying in terror. None of those resulted in a comforting presence.

The explanation most consistent with Christianity was that God had sent me aid when I needed it but also gave me opportunities to grow on my own. But the truth is, I didn’t really need that acting class. I wanted it, but it didn’t change my life or create lasting friendships. The opportunities I missed because of anxiety attacks were more important than the one where God “saved” me.

Besides, what I really needed wasn’t a sense of an angel. I had a mental health problem, and I needed to see a doctor. I couldn’t drive because of my anxiety, and my parents were willfully blind to my condition. When I told my parents about the paralyzing attack, they said it was because I hadn’t eaten enough. They were obsessed with healthy diets, and that was their go-to explanation for any anxiety attack of mine. But I knew for a fact that I had eaten enough that day. I had been keeping track, and diet wasn’t helping. The experience taught me that my mind and my body could betray me, and my parents would not take it seriously. If God was there when I needed him most, why didn’t he tell my parents to take me to a doctor?

The explanation a scientist would give for all that, on the other hand, was that the anxiety outside the acting class was relatively mild because the circumstances weren’t overly triggering, and my disorder was less severe at that point. Because it was mild, I could fight it by envisioning a comforting image, which, because of my religious upbringing, I gave spiritual significance. Later, as my mental health deteriorated, I lost the ability to comfort myself. This makes more sense to me.

As I said, three things upheld my belief; models, experience and community. By now you have some understanding of how the experiences that once seemed ironclad evidence became flimsy excuses. Research also meant that I could see how other people understood the world differently. I could see other models that people had, and how in many ways they explained the world better than mine. What remained was community, and that scared me. Because the truth was, my place in the community was entirely dependent on my faith. I could not exist among my old friends and family as an unbeliever, as a person with an adjusted model.

Remember how I described that model? How circular and self-referential it was, and how it stood on its own but moving or removing a single piece would send the whole thing crashing down? I envied those with other models, because they were malleable. They could be shifted around, repainted, parts replaced, replacement parts replaced again, and the whole thing still stood. They could learn that a certain part didn’t work, and make it into something better. I loved truth. I was afraid of going to hell if I happened to be wrong. So I decided to let my beliefs fall apart, and see if I could build up something better.

This was not when I lost my faith. This was when I remained in the church, but debated people, questioned my ideas, and tried to reform myself. It was also when I made new friends, and it was then that I discovered something. I had been miserable all along.

This is another statement of yours that got me.

Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ – Philippians 3:8

I’m only “preaching” to you because I want you to have what I have. He really is everything.

I remember feeling that way. I remember believing that nothing in my life was good except the love of Christ, and I’m not even talking about my anxiety disorder. I’m talking about something I had been raised with since birth; the understanding the only thing of any worth was the love of Jesus Christ. In prayer and worship I meditated on this and believed. In those moments of worship I felt an overwhelming love that I lived on.

That love was like candy. It was an intense, blissful sensation that produced energetic highs, and then let me crash down. It did not build me up into a strong, resilient person, because to believe myself worthy of God’s love I had to degrade myself as sinful (the irony of that worldview; I was filth, and only by acknowledging it wholeheartedly could I allow myself to feel the high of a God who loved me despite my worthlessness). My soul, for lack of a better word, was emaciated, an anorexic surviving on tic-tacs and glue. When I left the church for the company of unbelievers, the love they offered me was not the empty, worldly thing that had been described to me. It was a rough, flawed love, not an idealized one, but it had the nourishing qualities of crusty bread, crunchy apples and thick stew. The ideas and love I was encountering were soup and bread and apples and milk. Being seen as the weird, curious, queer boy I was, and loved for it, put meat back on my bones.

After years of questioning, I realized that atheism made more sense to me than any of the religions out there. It was a pragmatic decision. I am perfectly comfortable sharing the world with people who have religious beliefs. I am also comfortable with the idea that I might one day encounter new evidence that might change my mind. In the meantime, I am growing, I am learning, and I am loved.

And that’s what I, in turn, want for you. I don’t care whether you find it in Christianity or Buddhism or some other religion or abandoning religion altogether. If you have it now, I am happy to hear it. If you don’t, don’t be afraid to go looking for it.

Sincerely,

Lane William Brown